When I spoke to iRobot’s Colin Angle earlier this summer, he said iRobot OS — the latest software operating system for its robot vacuums and mops — would provide its household bots with a deeper understanding of your home and your habits. This takes on a whole new meaning with the news today that Amazon has bought iRobot for $1.7 billion.
From a smart home perspective, it seems clear Amazon wants iRobot for the maps it generates to give it that deep understanding of our homes. The vacuum company has detailed knowledge of our floor plans and, crucially, how they change. It knows where your kitchen is, which your kids’ rooms are, where your sofa is (and how new it is), and if you recently turned the guest room into a nursery.
This type of data is digital gold to a company whose primary purpose is to sell you more stuff. While I’m interested to see how Amazon can leverage iRobot’s tech to improve its smart home ambitions, many are right to be concerned with the privacy implications. People want home automation to work better, but they don’t want to give up the intimate details of their lives for more convenience.
This is a conundrum throughout the tech world, but in our homes, it’s far more personal. Amazon’s history of sharing data with police departments through its subsidiary Ring, combined with its “always listening (for the wake word)” Echo smart speakers and now its thorough knowledge of your floor plan, give it a pretty complete picture of your daily life.
Each of iRobot’s connected Roomba vacuums and mops trundles around homes multiple times a week, mapping and remapping the spaces. On its latest model, the j7, iRobot added a front-facing, AI-powered camera that, according to Angle, has detected more than 43 million objects in people’s homes. Other models have a low-resolution camera that points at the ceiling for navigation.
All this makes it likely this purchase isn’t about robotics; if that’s what Amazon wanted, it would have bought iRobot years ago. Instead, it probably picked up the company (for a relative bargain — iRobot just reported a 30 percent revenue decline in the face of increasing competition) to get a detailed look inside our homes. Why? Because knowing your floor plan provides context. And in the smart home that Amazon is making a major play for, context is king.
“We really believe in ambient intelligence — an environment where your devices are woven together by AI so they can offer far more than any device could do on its own,” Marja Koopmans, director of Alexa smart home, told me in an interview last month. Ambient intelligence requires multiple data points to work. With detailed maps of our homes and the ability to communicate directly with more smart home devices once Matter arrives, Amazon’s vision of ambient intelligence in the smart home suddenly becomes a lot more attainable.
Astro — Amazon’s “lovable” home bot — was likely an attempt at getting that data. The robot has good mapping capabilities, powered by sensors and cameras that allow it to know everything from where the fridge is to which room you are currently in. Clearly, Amazon already had the capability to do what iRobot does. But for a thousand dollars and with limited capabilities (it couldn’t vacuum your home) and no general release date, Astro isn’t getting that info for Amazon anytime soon.
Ring’s Always Home Cam has similar mapping capabilities, allowing the flying camera to safely navigate your home. That product has further reach than Astro, as it only costs $250 and has a very clear security focus. But it’s still not available to buy.
So, what iRobot brings to Amazon is context at scale. As Angle told me in May, “The barrier to the next level of AI in robotics isn’t better AI. It’s context,” says Angle. “We’ve been able to understand the utterance ‘go to the kitchen and get me a beer’ for a decade. But if I don’t know where the kitchen is, and I don’t know where the refrigerator is, and I don’t know what a beer looks like, it really doesn’t matter that I understand your words.” iRobot OS provides some of that context and, as it’s cloud-based, can easily share the information with other devices. (Currently, users can opt out of Roomba’s Smart Maps feature, which stores mapping data and shares it between iRobot devices.)
With context, the smart home becomes smarter; devices can work better and work together without the homeowner having to program them or prompt them to do so. Angle used the example of a connected air purifier (iRobot, so now Amazon, owns Aeris air purifiers). The air purifier could automatically know which room it was in using the iRobot OS cloud. “It would [know] ‘I’m in the kitchen. It’s okay to make more noise. And there are a lot of sources of pollutants here.’ Compared to its role in a bedroom, which would be different,” says Angle.
Amazon now owns four smart home brands (in addition to its Alexa platform, anchored by its Echo smart speakers and smart displays): home security company Ring, budget camera company Blink, and mesh Wi-Fi pioneers Eero. Add in iRobot and Amazon has many of the elements needed to create an almost sentient smart home, one that can anticipate what you want it to do and do it without you asking. This is something Amazon has already started to do with its Hunches feature.
But consumer trust is a major roadblock. Amazon will need to do a lot more to prove it’s worthy of this type of unfettered access to your home. Today, for many people, more convenience just doesn’t feel worth the tradeoff.
Photography by Jennifer Pattison Tuohy / The The Hamden Journal